Product Review: Each Vel-Oh bag is handmade in Ireland using British materials.
If, like me, you spend your commuting life near constantly in search of a work bag that is portable, durable, comfortable and has a whiff of luxury, you’d be well-advised to turn your attention to the Vel-Oh Howl.
It was by some quirk of fate that I have ended up owning what is essentially a cyclist’s holdall – after periodically alternating between conventional rucksacks and shoulder bags for most of my professional working life (Full Disclaimer: I don’t commute to work by bike, but do not let the Vel-Oh’s marketing toward this demographic put you off) – but it is an accident of providence that has ended up working very well.
The ‘Howl’ itself is not easy to define in terms of its design but has much to commend it: akin to the traditional knapsack, with its leather shoulder straps and strong canvass fabric, this is a very hardy and weather-resistant bag (British Millerain waxed cotton, to be precise) that is ideally suited to the bracing and unpredictable Scottish climes.
On de-boxing, the first sign of its quality is the leather trim; the superior grade is evidenced by the strong smell of leather that you might only otherwise experience by walking into a leather store. This is seriously potent stuff, and almost intoxicating, a smell that reminds me of buying my first leather jacket as a kid. Secondly, when you run your fingertips across the material, it’s hard to resist pretending to be an 80s hip-hop DJ scratching records: it’s that same inimitable sound and has quickly become an irresistible commuter pasttime.
The interior of the bag is cavernous; it doesn’t look large from the outside, once folded and buckled closed, but there is ample room inside for quite a heavy load. Personally, I was on a mission to find a bag that would allow me to declutter the old one. Sometimes, less is more, and the fact that you have one large storage space for general gear and a padded sleeve to slot in a 15″ laptop, was part of the austere appeal. My previous obsession with pockets has led to all kinds of calamities, including the regular and slow rotting of fruit, leaking Biros, melted chocolate and welded-on sweets. In a move to pare-down my work/tech-life, the leap to the Howl makes a lot of sense.
Nothing in life is perfect, and the bag does have some draw-backs; the detachable black shoulder strap should really follow the same style cues as the rest of the bag. I ‘get’ that the bag is predominantly for hipsters roving around town on their bikes, so most will prefer to use it as a straightforward rucksack, but the Howl is marketed as ‘versatile’ (as well as being ‘waterproof’, ‘lightweight’ and ‘stylish’) so it should do a little more to reflect that. There should also be some kind of slot for pens as well (in my view the small zip pocket inside is ill-suited to that task; as a tech writer, I should probably not confess to being a lover of pens, but there you are. Pens, notebooks and recording devices (legitimate ones) are my professional life.
In the near relentless onslaught of emails, I initially skated over the blurb that came with the Vel-Oh press release (the mind boggles over how I missed the fact ‘vélo’ is literally the French for cycling – ‘J’aime faire du vélo’, for a trip down GCSE memory lane), so I ended up blindly opting for a bag that was clearly not intended for a boring old train carriage. However, talking of school, there is something throwback and comforting about a bag that reminds me of my very first scuffed satchel, albeit on a much lighter and more stylish scale. For ‘lightweight’, the Howl definitely scores highly, as it has already lessened the load on an overburdened shoulder. ‘Stylish’, ditto, and ‘waterproof’ – well, let’s see (I live in Scotland, where rain is not short in supply).
Finally, the packaging, and a note of thanks. When I received the bag, it came from the designers directly and the otherwise unexciting brown paper parcel was adorned with cheery black polka dots, to match the quirky interior fabric. I am indebted to Zulfi and Greta Moon, the ‘husband-and-wife team of urban cyclists & designers’ who moved from London to rural Ireland in 2016 to pursue their design studio aims, who allowed me to test the product out; I can only congratulate them on their exceptional work and for the delightfully personal touch in dispatching it.
If you’re a tech type, enjoy riding bikes (or trains for that matter), and are looking for something commodious, effortless and elegant in look and feel, then Vel-Oh’s Howl bag ticks an awful lot of boxes; with Christmas around the corner, it would certainly be a worthy contender for a luxury gift that combines a sturdy uniqueness with quality of design and rich provenance of materials.